The Dallas Cowboys are pretty much a lock for the NFL playoffs heading into Week 16, boasting a three-game lead atop the NFC East with three games left in the regular season.
Their defense is forcing turnovers at an impressive rate and playing at a high level overall. But can we say the same about the offense?
From what we’ve seen of the Dallas passing game over the past few weeks, it makes you wonder if the Cowboys (10-4) are capable of making a deep playoff run.
This Cowboys offense has gone from fourth in the NFL to 16th in passing DVOA since Week 10.
Dak Prescott completed 201 of 286 attempts (70.3%) for 2,341 yards with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions in his first eight games of the season. But in his past five games, he’s 136 of 206 (66%) for 1,257 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions. Importantly, his yards per attempt has dropped from 8.2 in his first eight games to 6.1 since.
This Cowboys offense is not the same.
Ugly wins against sub -500 teams can be a cause for concern. That’s not what you expect to see from a Super Bowl contender. Ultimately, will the Cowboys be able to elevate their passing game to the same level that their defense is playing at?
The simple answer is — yes.
In recent weeks, blanket coverages have forced the Dallas offense to make adjustments, and without explosive plays, scoring has become more difficult.
Since losing to the Denver Broncos in Week 9, the Cowboys offense has seemingly been in malaise. Opponents started regularly dropping four or five defenders deep into the secondary, aiming to take away the Cowboys’ playmakers, and Prescott has started forcing throws.
Defenses are no longer using a single high safety, or even two high safeties, like the Cowboys saw earlier in the season. The Broncos changed how teams are defending the Cowboys.
On the interception Prescott threw against Denver in Week 9, the presence of safety Caden Sterns in the middle of the field took away the quarterback’s high-low concept reads.
Prescott had the shallow crosser open to tight end Dalton Schultz, but instead, he went for the dig route at the second level. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get it over the defender in the middle of the field, Sterns.
The Washington Football Team came out in a similar look in Week 14. When Washington dropped its middle linebacker into coverage, Prescott wasn’t able to drop the ball into the hands of wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. Instead, the throw sailed on him.
The Cowboys only used a few plays to attack the middle of the field against Washington, but when they did, it was successful.
In the clip below, running back Ezekiel Elliott motioned from the slot and opened up the middle of the field when linebacker Cole Holcomb shaded toward him. Without any reads, Prescott trusted his eyes and made the throw to Lamb to keep the sticks moving.
But unfortunately, the offense didn’t use this strategy consistently.
On the play below, the Cowboys drew up a great play to get the ball into the middle of the field — and wide receiver Amari Cooper is open. But instead, Prescott forced the ball to Elliot, who was running a fade into the end zone. If this was a wideout running a wheel route, maybe this would be successful, but it’s not a huge mismatch with a running back against a linebacker.
Against the New York Giants in Week 15, Prescott took some deep shots. But as the game progressed, he focused more and more on moving the defender in the middle of the field. He does this successfully in the two clips below, completing passes to Lamb and Schultz, respectively.
If Prescott continues to exploit soft coverages over the middle, defenses almost certainly will begin stepping up in order to shut down those shorter passes — and that is when the deep passing game will begin to open up again.
If that happens, perhaps the offense can revert back to its high-scoring ways from earlier in the season and make a run at the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 26 years.